What is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a serious respiratory illness resulting in an atypical pneumonia that can be fatal. Health officials believe that a newly recognized strain of a virus, called a coronavirus, is the likely cause of the illness. Known forms of coronavirus cause common colds and upper respiratory tract infections. The first case of SARS was reported in China in November 2002. After that, the disease spread rapidly across a number of countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Health officials in Canada and the United States reported imported cases. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at and the World Health Organization (WHO) website at for periodic updates.

How is SARS spread?

The disease is highly contagious on close personal contact with an infected person. It is spread by droplets released in coughing and sneezing and direct contact with the respiratory secretions or other bodily fluids of an infected person. Close contact is defined as having cared for, having lived with, or having had direct contact with respiratory secretions and/or body fluids of a patient suspected of having SARS.

What are the signs and symptoms of SARS?

Signs and symptoms usually appear within 2 to 7 days after exposure to a person with SARS. The main signs and symptoms of SARS are:

  • High fever (greater than 100.4 degrees F or 38 degrees C)
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Malaise (a general discomfort or feeling sick)

In addition, a person with SARS must have one of the following:

  • Close contact with a person who has received a diagnosis of SARS
  • Recent travel to a SARS affected area as defined by the CDC and/or WHO

SARS may be diagnosed on the above signs and symptoms and results from additional tests, including:

  • Chest x-ray, which will indicate pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Blood tests, which may show a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia) and low white blood cell count (leukopenia)

What is the treatment for SARS?

There are no specific treatment recommendations at this time. Antibiotic medications are not effective because SARS is a viral infection. Treatment has included antiviral agents, oral or intravenous steroids, and antibiotics to presumptively treat known bacterial agents of atypical pneumonia.

Is travel restricted to SARS affected areas?

On July 11, 2003, the CDC removed its final SARS travel alert for Beijing, China because more than 30 days (or three SARS incubation periods) had elapsed since the onset of symptoms in the last reported case.

Travelers should be aware of their risk for communicable diseases, such as SARS, and stay informed about current travel alerts and advisories. Information about travel alerts and advisories and CDC pre-travel health recommendations can be found at

How can I avoid contracting SARS?

Health experts say it is important to maintain good personal hygiene and good ventilation in home and work environments.

  • Washing hands frequently with liquid soap and using disposable towels is advised. Use plain soap and warm water and wash for at least 20 seconds. Waterless hand cleaners (alcohol-based) may be substituted for a hand wash if hands are not visibly soiled.
    Hand washing is the single most important procedure for preventing the spread of infection.
  • Build up your immune system. This means eating a proper diet, having regular exercise, getting adequate rest, reducing stress and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth or wash your hands thoroughly before you do.
  • Do not share towels, bedding, eating utensils, drinks, or cigarettes.
  • Maintain good ventilation in your living and working quarters.
  • Avoid visiting crowded places with poor ventilation.
  • Seek medical assistance promptly if you develop respiratory symptoms.
  • Wear a mask if visiting or caring for someone with SARS or when in an area where SARS is known to have occurred.
  • Clean and wash furniture and other surfaces regularly with a disinfectant cleaner, e.g., 1 part bleach to 99 parts water.

What should I do if I think I have SARS?

If you are ill with fever accompanied by cough or difficulty breathing, you should consult a health care provider. To help your health care provider make a diagnosis, tell him/her about any recent travel to areas where cases of SARS have been reported and whether you were in contact with someone who had these symptoms.

What is being done to combat this health threat?

The CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC); deployed CDC scientists to assist the WHO in the global investigation; is assisting state and local health departments in investigating possible cases of SARS in the United States; and is analyzing laboratory specimens to identify the cause for SARS and develop a test to readily detect it. The CDC and the WHO are communicating regularly with public health professionals, government officials, clinicians and the general public.

Is there any reason to think SARS is or is not related to terrorism?

Information currently available about SARS indicates that people who appear to be most at risk are either health care workers taking care of sick people or family members or household contacts of those who are infected with SARS. The pattern of transmission is what is typically expected in a contagious respiratory or flu-like illness.

For additional information, contact CMU Health Services, 989-774-3944 or e-mail:

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